Piece of cake

Recently I had a real hankering for cake. I’d be sitting at work, staring at spreadsheets and billings but dreaming about a firm, moist yellow cake with the kind of crispy white icing that melts in your mouth. No one ever told me I’d fantasize about cake the way I used to fantasize about boys, but let’s get back to that cake.

This was this cake of my dreams. I always knew it as 7-minute cake.

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I haven’t had it in about 25 years. My dad’s mother used to make it every year for my birthday. She knew her way around the kitchen and died many years ago and before I thought to show interest in her skills. She was tricky to get close to, but her cooking and baking was pure love.

Who knows why that cake started to call to me all these years later. Work has been busy and stressful and I have been self-medicating something fierce with sugar. I’m none too pleased with myself, and more on that in a bit. But I wonder sometimes at the seemingly random resurfacing of memories. Maybe it was literally the 25th anniversary of the last time I had that cake and my brain figured this is it, we get it again or lose it forever. Maybe my brain was embarrassed to realize I’d never made a cake before. Like ever.

Now, I always liked to cook, especially before I got sober, and lately I’ve felt the urge to get back to it again. But baking isn’t cooking, and while I have baked plenty of things from scratch, I somehow never made a layer cake. The idea of needing perfectly matching layers intimidated me, plus I only had one cake pan. This was easy enough to fix, and after hunting around the internet and asking my mom what she knew about the cake, I finally remembered the old wooden recipe box at the back of one of our kitchen cabinets.

 

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I can’t remember when or how I got it, but this old recipe box used to belong to my mother, who died many years ago. It’s filled with clipped recipes that were hot stuff in the early 70s, like Boeuf Bourguignon, but it also has a cache of family treasures like the shrimp dip we serve at literally every gathering and Aunt Helen’s punch. Index cards are neatly filled with my mother’s script, many credited to Mom D., a woman I know was not easy to impress. I wonder if my mom was trying to bond with her mother-in-law over something she knew she loved. I found a recipe for boiled icing and another one for 1-2-3 cake and figured they were my best shot.

With the recent long weekend and colder weather settled in, it felt like the perfect time to attempt my first layer cake and recreate an old favorite. My girls were happy to help and hopefully they learned baking a cake isn’t hard at all. All you really need is two good cake pans ($9 for a set at Wegmans), a 20 year-old electric mixer that smells like it might burst into flames at any minute, and patience from those trying to watch TV in the other room while you run it on high for the next 20 minutes. Baking a cake isn’t a piece of cake, but it turns into one, so it’s a satisfying endeavor.

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This was the finished product. We were really pleased with ourselves. Unfortunately, the icing is nothing like what I remember from my grandmother’s cake. While delicious, this icing was goopy and thick like marshmallow cream. My grandmother’s icing was thinner and had a slightly crispy outer shell that melted in your mouth. I did some research online because apparently I’m not the only one searching for childhood in recipe forums, and I think the trick is leaving the cake out overnight. And I’m certain this is just what my grandmother did. I can picture it on a crystal pedestal on the sideboard in her dining room and, unlike us, they didn’t have nosy pets to take a lick or twenty.

The 1-2-3 cake itself turned out nothing like I remember, but it was still old fashioned and good. I have an email in to my aunt to see if she can help me with my grandmother’s cake recipe. My aunt also used to make a lovely chocolate cake with buttercream icing, and it dawned on me how reckless that I never thought to ask her for that either.

The thing about this recent obsession with cake and recreating family recipes is it’s poorly timed. Or maybe not. Lately I’ve come to the re-conclusion that I have a serious sugar habit and I need to do something about it. I’m still noodling through what that will look like,  but I’m pretty sure it won’t involve fat slices of cake under the guise of taste-testing old family recipes. I’m hoping it doesn’t involve sitting at my desk fantasizing about cake.

Most of the fun of baking is doing it with my girls. They love helping out, especially when it comes time to lick the beaters. Cooking seems more like an adult hobby, while baking feels special and like a place to reconnect with not only old recipes but the people who breathed them into life.

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Leftover icing
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24 thoughts on “Piece of cake

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      1. I also love the name.
        “sympathetic magic” – primitive or magical ritual using objects or actions resembling or symbolically associated with the event or person over which influence is sought.

        See Paleolithic rock art

        x

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I’ve heard of seven-minute frosting. My mother used to make it. Never heard of seven-minute cake. I was always about chocolate cake, myself. Somewhere I found a great recipe for a Triple Chocolate cake that I used to like to make. It was SO delicious – if you really like chocolate.

    It’s funny, because my grandmother didn’t bake or cook much that I remember. But when I graduated from high school she gave me her cook book as a gift. I learned to cook (and bake) from that book.

    I hope you find the recipe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is just 7 minute frosting…the cake part got tacked on like a nickname I guess. Your chocolate cake sounds fantastic, especially the triple part! That’s very sweet about the cookbook, and practical too.

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  2. My mother speaks of the terror she felt cooking a meal for her mother-in-law as a newly wed. I can’t remember how that turned out, though. I should ask!
    Let me know how that sugar thing works out for you. Asking for a friend…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ah, Wegmans! Ha, I know the 7 minute icing too. That’s the bomb: my mother-in-law makes it. Nice story Kristen, good time of the year to settle in with the layers and the sugar and the old recipes, there. Break out the Low.

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    1. We alternate between Wegmans and Aldi these days. I wonder if you have Aldis on the west coast… And my daughter already added Low to her playlist and played it in the car this week. By 12/25, we’ll be Christmassed out!

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      1. Aldi!!!! That’s crazy…they have those in Germany, that’s where I first saw them. I noticed one on MacArther road/ 7th street last time I was in Allentown, too…funny. Nothing tops Weggies, though. Bill

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  4. Well, this sure brought back memories!
    My mom and grandma were the best cake and cookie bakers.
    I loved my grandmas big people sugar cookies, and now the recipe is lost.
    This makes me want to bake a cake tomorrow, but I know hubs will eat it all day and night, if I don’t get to it first!!
    xoxo
    Wendy

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What an awesome tradition you get to carry on! That old recipe rolodex is priceless. My mom had one very similar to it. I’m carrying something on recently myself, reading charlottes web to my boy.

    As always, you’ve written a thoughtful, elegant, and insightful slice of life!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Mark! The recipe Rolodex is awesome, an archive of old clippings and catalog of family favorites that my mother thoughtfully preserved. It’s also a way to get to know her since she died when I was so young. I’m going to look for some holiday recipes to bake with my girls.

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  6. Kristen – that cake looks absolutely amazing! I love the photo of “younger you,” too.
    You must know that you hit a soft spot in my heart. I have dozens of photos of our old family recipe box. I especially like the cards with splatters and marks. I’ve been compiling a huge post detailing our recipe box, too…but I can’t quite finish it. Maybe it’s the nostalgia, maybe it’s the memories…maybe it’s the sugar…but, I’m not ready to hit publish.
    I loved this- you know I love your memoir writing. As for the frosting, I’m just curious. Did it call for Creme of Tartar? My mom baked wedding cakes for a living, and that’s what she used to make the frosting (buttercream) nice and stiff – it also had a bit of a crunch to it. Just a thought:) xo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It did have cream of tartar. And I did think of your recent recipe post! Oh I hope you do continue with that family recipe box post. You’ll know when it’s ready. Maybe it’s still rising. There are so many recipes in the box I have, plus my dad’s cousin recently found a collection belonging to my grandmother’s (7 minute icing grandma) sister. She doesn’t live near me but I might ask her to take a few photos and email them. Those sisters knew their way around a kitchen.

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